Upgrading on a budget: Running Linux on a refurbished laptop and docking station

Upgrading on a budget: Running Linux on a refurbished laptop and docking station

Summary: Buying refurbished systems can save a lot of money and produce impressive results: here's what I found when testing out openSuSE and Fedora 19 on a a refurbished Lenovo.

TOPICS: Linux, Laptops, Lenovo

Laptop computers with docking stations (or port replicators) seem to fall into a special (and expensive) category. 

I suppose this is because the manufacturers know that the primary market for such systems in business customers, where the price/pain threshold is considerably higher than with private customers. 

It's easy to see the difference — you can get a well equipped and configured laptop which does not have a docking capability for well under $1,000, but the equivalent configuration in a laptop with docking station is likely to be $2,000 or more from the same manufacturer.  As far as I can tell, this is true of pretty much all the manufacturers — I have checked HP, Dell, Fujitsu and Lenovo, for example.

For the private customer, one way to get around this premium is "refurbished" systems. 

Buying them is similar in a lot of ways to buying a used car: you can get very good value for your money, but you have to be careful and look very closely at what you are buying and who you are buying it from. 

There are several resellers here in Switzerland who offer refurbs, and I recently got an email from one of them listing a Lenovo T-400 for 387 Swiss francs (about £270 or $400) including a docking station.  OK, that's a pretty old system but it is a ridiculously low price, too. My workhorse Fujitsu Lifebook S6510 is now six years old (see one of my earliest blog posts here New Laptop - Fujitsu Lifebook S6510), and the cooling fan has started making a pretty obnoxious noise, so I figured it was worth a look — at that price I certainly don't have much to lose.

T-400 Dock
Lenovo T-400 Docking Station


The ThinkPad line of laptops is certainly well constructed (I have referred to them over the years as ThinkTank systems), and this one is no exception, very solidly built — meaning very heavy too.

It looks like it has been thoroughly "refurbished", cleaned up, polished and checked for proper functioning. One thing to be particularly careful about when buying used/refurbished laptops: it came with a new battery. 

Although this one came with Windows 7, it was obviously sold originally with Windows Vista because the Vista key sticker is still on the bottom. Either way I don't care much because my primary use for it will be running Linux. 

It's a good hardware configuration, with a 14-inch display, Core2 Duo P8400 2.26GHz processor, Intel Graphics, 4GB memory, 160GB disk, Intel Gigbit wired and Intel 5100 AGN wireless network controllers, three USB ports (but only 2.0, not 3.0), and a DVD-RW drive. That disk is a bit on the small side, but if I decide to keep this laptop I will most likely replace the disk with an SSD anyway.

The docking station adds four more USB ports and DVI video connection. Overall it looks like it is well suited to my desktop needs, a minor step up in configuration and performance from the S6510, a major step down in noise level, and about a quarter or less the price of what a new laptop with docking station would probably cost me. But how does it work with Linux?

Installing Fedora 19: What's new?

Installing Fedora 19: What's new?

Installing Fedora 19: What's new?

I decided to start with openSuSE 12.3, because that is currently my primary operating system on the S6510. I was able to boot a LiveUSB stick with no problem (just press F12 during boot) — with older systems this is not as obvious as you might think — and after a bit of fiddling around and testing various things, it looked like everything was working. 

This is, of course, a "legacy" BIOS system (not UEFI), and the disk partitioning was standard DOS (not GPT), so booting, repartitioning the disk and installing to the hard drive were all dead easy. Once that was done, I booted openSuSE from the hard drive, and went through a more careful check that everything was working. 

Then I shut down, put the laptop in the docking station with everything connected (keyboard, trackball, display, network, sound/speakers, printer) and booted back up again.  Perfect.  Everything recognised and working straight away.  The external VGA monitor was configured as a clone of the laptop display, but that was easy to change through the KDE Display Control module.  I dug out a Bluetooth mouse, and that connected and worked too.  Good stuff!

OK, with openSuSE working, my next stop was Fedora 19.

Once again, shut down, remove from the docking station and boot the LiveUSB stick. I also wanted to check the battery life, so this time I was running without power connected. Everything seemed to be working again, as expected, so I went ahead with the installation to disk, and rebooted — no worries. 

After I had been working with it for about two hours, and updates were in the middle of installing, it started complaining about low battery. Time for a more brutal test — I just whacked it into the docking station, without shutting down, sleeping or whatever, still running. I was very pleasantly surprised to see that not only did it detect and configure everything on the fly, but it brought up the external monitor in extended desktop mode, with both the laptop display and external monitor at optimal resolution! Nice touch, Fedora.

I continued through my usual list of Linux distributions — Debian 7.0, Mint Cinnamon 15, Ubuntu 13.10 all installed perfectly, as openSuSE and Fedora had done.  Not one problem, not one missing driver that I had to go looking for, not one unsupported device. Good news.

Finally, what about the next round of Linux releases?

I decided to give openSuSE 13.1 a try as well — RC2 just came out, and it is only about two weeks until the final release, so it should be pretty solid by now. 

This time, when I booted the 13.1 LiveUSB stick, I still had the T-400 in the docking station. I didn't do that intentionally, I had just been working on it and testing everything, and I didn't think about ejecting it before starting to load openSuSE 13.1.

I was quite surprised to see that it not only recognised the external display, but it also configured it properly with an extended desktop including the laptop display, and it had both of them at their optimal resolution.  Fedora was the only distribution that had done this before, so it is nice to see this capability spreading to other distributions. The rest of the installation seemed exactly the same as it had been with 12.3, and once again everything worked just fine.

So, there you have it.  For a very low cost, I have replaced the laptop on my desk, with a docking station, and it ran every version of Linux that I felt like trying on it. Performance is good to excellent for my purposes — everyday use, software development, writing, web browsing and correspondence.

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Topics: Linux, Laptops, Lenovo

J.A. Watson

About J.A. Watson

I started working with what we called "analog computers" in aircraft maintenance with the United States Air Force in 1970. After finishing military service and returning to university, I was introduced to microprocessors and machine language programming on Intel 4040 processors. After that I also worked on, operated and programmed Digital Equipment Corporation PDP-8, PDP-11 (/45 and /70) and VAX minicomputers. I was involved with the first wave of Unix-based microcomputers, in the early '80s. I have been working in software development, operation, installation and support since then.

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  • Refurbished

    I purchased a refurbished ThinkPad T-22 some years ago for around $300 U.S. and installed Debian, Arch and openBSD until I eventually passed it on to a relative. When passing it on, I installed Ubuntu as I wanted my relatives to know that Windows was not the only option for home computing.

    Another good source for ThinkPad laptops is the Lenovo Outlet store (online). Currently, there are a handful of T530's that are priced between $600 and $700 U.S. with savings of over $600 U.S. No docking station, though. In addition, refurbished PCs purchased directly from an OEM such as Lenovo get the full warranty.
    Rabid Howler Monkey
    • Tiger Direct also

      This article reminded me to purchase a Dell quad core I5 laptop with the docking interface for $329. I already had a docking station so the choice was easy. They also had other laptops that would have worked with my docking stations for as little as $229. All were refurbished and I thought a good deal.
  • Bad idea!

    I run RHEL on a T420 and it runs like crap. I have tried the idea of extending the life of old hardware by using a light weight Linux Distro, it doesn't work very well, I prefer to by current hardware and use an OS that works well on the hardware.
    • which lightweight distro?

      Busy google-ing this now, are we?
      • Ubuntu and Mint

        Those are the only other distros that I have used besides RHEL.
        • Ubuntu and Mint

        • Heavyweight

          Those are pretty heavyweight, heavily burdened versions aimed at ease of use and looking for a reasonably powerful processor.

          If you want light weight, you should be looking at Puppy, DSL (Damn Small Linux), Lubuntu would be another, although it isn't a truly lightweight Linux.
        • Arch

          Try Arch. Yes, it takes more work to set up, but you end up with a system that has nothing on it, but what you choose. If you take the time to read the documentation, you can have a complete system set up with GUI desktop of your choice in an hour or so.
        • Bodhi

          If you like an Ubuntu derivative that's fast, light and slick. My granddaughters (age 7 & 6 ) run it on an ex-XP Thinkpad and picked it up right away. I loaded it with kid stuff and Tux Paint, but it could serve them right through college.
  • Opensuse 13.1

    Yast has been re-written in ruby so hopefully we should see a lot of new features coming to Yast.

    Alan Smithie
  • Re: Running Linux on a refurbished laptop....

    Many times have I seen a Pentium 4 PC/Laptop transformed by having Linux installed. It really is amazing just what can be achieved on such a machine with 1GB RAM.
    It is for such an application Linux is perfect for. Web Browsing, Facebook, eBay, emails, non HD Videos and perhaps some 2D Gaming.
    • You're right

      I agree with you. I just bought an old MSI U120 netbook and installed OpenSUSE 12.3 on it. I probably should have gone with something designed to be lightweight but even so I'm impressed with its' performance so far.

      I'm kind of mad that the 1 GB of ram is soldered onto the board, otherwise I could have bumped it up to 2 GB's. The Intel Atom (N270 I think) doesn't exactly make everything fly but I very rarely experience lag. Of course, I'm just web surfing and testing out Calligra Author by writing short stories in it. Most of the performance issues I've seen have been due to the slower hdd access speeds than actual processor and memory issues (although I know I could make it cry if i tried).
  • I don't get what Lock-in means

    Every time I talk to a Linux fan, they always coin this term "lock-in" with Windows and Apple. Yes if you buy an Apple computer it comes with OS X installed. You are free to use Windows and Linux. Computers which come with Windows allow you to install Linux and doesn't forbid you to install OS X. I don't feel locked in on either platform. If Linux had some proper applications worth using, I would use said applications and Linux. The pure and simple fact is that it doesn't. The best application, Libre Office doesn't even come close to MS Office, and Gimp barely puts a minor ding into Photoshop, not mentioning the joke that is Audacity.

    Using an older PC with Linux to keep it on the Internet, just seems like the natural progression of things. Drivers exist, bugs worked out, and can't possibly drive newer applications, operating systems, or games. If the computer still works and you don't want to sink $120 USD for Windows 8.1 to bring it back to life because the machine isn't even worth $120, Linux makes financial sense.

    I get why people don't buy new computers, they are doing the economy, themselves, and everyone else a complete disservice to keep running Windows XP even a year ago. It puts strain on Microsoft to keep supporting an ancient OS, might as well run Windows 95. They hold onto these older machines and Windows XP as if it were the bastion keeping them alive.

    This is hardly what I would call "lock-in", Microsoft supported Windows XP from 2001-2014. It gave people the freedom of choice to keep using the OS with support for 13 years. Linux versions get old within 6 months of release. Like the old version? too bad because its free you should just shut up and upgrade... "but I like the old way of doing it" TOO BAD USE THIS NEW GUI! Windows hasn't changed the UI from 1995-2012 with only minor updates. The new UI is getting updates to it with Windows 8.1. The same cannot be said for Linux. With a "choice" of random desktops, all of which upgrade their respective UIs entirely around 3-5 years or so. Constant change for change sake is not a good idea.

    The market is going mobile and for Microsoft to stay relevant they needed to make a Mobile UI. I like the fact that I can buy an x86_64 tablet, have it use the new touch UI and still run legacy applications. This is not to say desktop computing is dead, which they allow you in Windows 8.1 to boot to desktop and other UI enhancements as a free upgrade to Windows 8.

    but but but Linux has been free forever... that's just it though there is no way of making money off of the OS. To users who are used to getting software for free, how well would my paid application fair on such a platform? To develop for Linux I am locked into basically giving my software away for free and twist my arm into handing over my source code.

    Linux will always be second pick for the team because it will never be what it needs to be. The only reason it exists in the server room, is because companies invested millions of dollars into RHEL and other various distributions for their own in-house distributions and out of kindness and GPL violations they were basically forced to releasing the code. Places like Steam developing their OS for free, as a platform to sell games to end users makes sense, but like if I only have to develop for Windows, which is widely used or develop in hopes that my software will sell on a new platform... you can see how this turns into a problem.

    This IS the way the world works, get used to it or get off of it.
    • No. You aren't.

      You are just lying through your teeth over that.

      Your software is your own. Do what you want with it.

      Just don't include software written by someone else with an incompatible license...
    • You sound "locked in" Christopher...

      ...and don't even realise it.

      None are so blind as those who wish not to see.

      The "lock-in" is a subtle one - which is why you're not even aware of it: you *think* that MS sets some sort of incredible standard in terms of quality of software, and don't realise that that "think" you suppose is your own is really a result of clever marketing. Goebbels, that monster who was responsible for such atrocities in WWII, said the following:
      “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. The lie can be maintained only for such time as the State can shield the people from the political, economic and/or military consequences of the lie. It thus becomes vitally important for the State to use all of its powers to repress dissent, for the truth is the mortal enemy of the lie, and thus by extension, the truth is the greatest enemy of the State.”
      I'm SURE you think that it's YOUR assessment of alternative Office solutions you're using as criteria, but it isn't, not really. For example, LibreOffice allows you to write macros in both BASIC but also in the far more robust, solid, OOP-language Python. VBA in MS's offering is just... BASIC. And it's so bad and the behaviour so inconsistent that the most recent flavours of Office appear to be dropping it.
      "First things first: Developers who want to build these new apps -- and take home 80 percent of the revenue for paid ones (with Microsoft keeping the other 20 percent) -- need to think different. No more using VBA or VSTO or macros if you want your app to be available via the new Office and SharePoint Stores. While VBA, VSTO, macros and other legacy Office development concepts and conventions will still work with the coming versions of Office and SharePoint, Jones said, the way of the future for Office developers is via the Web."
      I program extensively in VBA: of all the languages I work with, it's the worst by a huge stretch. Python is clean and fast and DOES properly support Objects, which VBA takes an absolutely chaotic, whimsical approach to. Bloody awful.
    • Visitor from Retard.

      Another resident of planet Retard.
      Stephen Charchuk
    • Locked in!

      As previously stated, the lockin is in the form of both financial, experience & configuration in training, of equipment & in the application all of which in the Windows world are hard if not impossible to transfer to another OS platform. This lockin is reinforced by adoption of unique and incompatable standards and possibly furthered by locking out all other OS' s by UEFI until widespread protest. It is fair to argue that Linux too has an element of lockin with regard to config, training & support, but to a much lesser financial cost being free in apps & OS licence.
      Your point of there being a lack of serious enterprise applications is valid though, (I gave a vote up for that!) but I do not agree with your opinion of Libre or Open Office for that matter, as they are in successful use in the corporate wild despite MS attempts to change the standards and Fud.
      At the end of the day all we all want is the choice to choose what works for us now, with as few hurdles and as much ease of flexibility to change to meet future requirements.
    • I run my business with Xubuntu, Gambas hand-me-down desktops and laptops

      People don't know what to do with their perfectly good desktops and laptops when they buy a shiny new one. I take them, upgrade the hardware if necessary, wipe out M$ Windows, install Xubuntu or Mint operating systems, install LibreOffice and all of the other free software that I need, including Gambas BASIC for Linux. The computers are nearly free of cost, and run perfectly -- better than they did with M$ operating systems. The Gambas software development system can easily be used with MySQL, SQLite or other open-source database components (built into the language) for professional database management, but it is the simplest way to write precisely tailored software of any kind that I know of. I don't waste a cent on the stupid operating system upgrades that fuel Microsoft and Apple -- just my experience.
      • That's good you can do that but

        it would fall flat on it's face here and with the school system I volunteer to support (private school). But congrats.
    • Please, please, please tell us

      What MS Office does that LibreOffice doesn't. I have asked this question about a dozen times here with no responses.
      Hint: If you actually try LibreOffice, you might be able to find something to tell us.